Experts, savants and complexity.

It has been my experience and observation, not once, but a few times, that someone I have known to have some level of ability in a domain that goes beyond straightforward expertise, when asked honest and interested questions about how some outcome of theirs was achieved, has become unhelpful. Sometimes tetchy, sometimes incommunicative, sometimes vague.

And this can be surprising. Somehow, we can have an assumption that anyone who can produce extraordinary results in their domain has such a lucid command of that domain that they should be able to tell us just how and why they do it – and further, that they ought to be happy to explain. After all, we are in awe of them, fascinated by their capacity to produce such work – surely they’ll be happy to be listened to.

But no, not always. Quite often not, in my experience.

Continue reading “Experts, savants and complexity.”

Economic Action – A Transcender approach.

This post relates to the wider ‘Transcender Manifesto for a World Beyond Capitalism‘ – more directly addressing the selection, requirements, design and operation of structures that could expand the world of transcender relations around value exchange – those that achieve viability through ‘earning their living’ in the economic sphere.

This is important because, despite the bad name economics has earned through the cruelties and negative impacts of the last few centuries of rampant expansionism, it seems clear that the messaging system facilitated by markets is fundamental to what we require from our civilisation – and that we cannot simply junk these without abandoning much that we value.

We have to accept that economic activity is at the core of our capacity to have a recognisable civilisation, at least until we can evolve further, to a gift economy of abundance.

In order to transcend capitalism, though, starting from where we are, we must fundamentally change the way that money, markets – and thus the implicit incentives that drive overall outcomes – work.

CORE INTENT

From the Transcender Manifesto:

We seek not to destroy capitalism, nor to reform it, but to transcend it – to consciously and rapidly evolve past it. We acknowledge its current hegemony, and accept that this arose as a result of its dynamism, adaptability, and ability to offer value to those who built it (while also recognising with horror its inherent violence towards the people and places which it so forcibly transformed). But the law of diminishing returns has set in, and the future negatives now dangerously and imminently outweigh any historic positives.

We will enact and intensify social relations that produce a human culture which supports the abundance of the biosphere, in confidence that this will require human flourishing that transcends what is considered possible under capitalism.

THE PARADOXICAL REQUIREMENT

If we are to take this intent seriously, then we must face, head-on – and resolve – a harsh paradox: that in order for new social relations to change the self-destructive path of capitalist world culture, they must be adopted at a faster rate than capitalism grows – we must accept that we are required to out-grow the most growth-oriented human invention to date, on the basis of a new and developing culture that consciously rejects using economic growth as a positive feedback loop.

This is a tall order.

In the first instance, capitalism must be acknowledged to be an astonishing human invention – incredibly adaptable, utterly amoral, utterly short-termist, operating always on the basis of giving those who push it forwards a speedy return. It has been hegemonic for centuries, and many aspects of its operation have become deeply embedded in our culture, to the extent that they are perhaps more real than physics for many people (despite being entirely contingent).

There are three broad options in the face of the civilisation-threatening end-game of such a virulent meme:

  • Violent Revolution – abrupt change at the centre. Historical examples suggest that this is ineffective as regards systemic change. Since the capitalist system is now a global machine, revolution would have to succeed on a significant scale – an unimaginable prospect given that the idea currently has so little public support. Further, there is no believable plan in place to support a civilisation of 7 billion plus humans if we were to overthrow capitalism. That is even if we ignore what people have to become to fight a revolution and win. If you are thinking about some peaceful transitions that took place as the Iron Curtain fell – which were described in terms such as ‘the Velvet Revolution’ – don’t let this confuse you; these were not revolutions against capitalism, but surrenders to it: a whole society giving up on a defeated attempt at a violent transition to what was little more than a theory.
  • Reform – the appeal to reason. The idea here would be to convince capitalist cultures that it is imperative to change the fundamentals of their model if we are to avoid collapse. On the face of it, this should have a chance – democracy is the accepted world governance standard, and all it takes is enough of us to vote for change, and we’ll get it, right? Sadly, this is dangerous naivety. Economic systems are only ever the means whereby power structures reproduce themselves – economics is not the power structure itself. Capitalism is not the be-all and end-all for the global elites – it is their enduring power they are really concerned about. Many of them are already pondering a post-crash world and various versions of neo-feudalism – with them as the new nobility. These elites, it seems to me, are hard for us to understand because they do something strange: while the rest of us oscillate between the short term (how do I pay the rent?) and the long term (how do we deal with climate change?), it seems that they think mostly in the medium term – about the power their children and grandchildren will inherit. This makes them discount long-term threats, while playing deeper financial games than we do. We can have no real dialogue with people who think this way – and even if we wished to they do not act as a class (in part because they rely upon the mystification of power provided by mainstream economics to the extent that many of them are unaware of their own reality). I think we can discount reformism as a busted flush – see Piketty.
  • Transcending capitalism. This third option seems weak by comparison at first – but I think it is the only safe way forward. It consists in: not fighting capitalism (unless absolutely necessary), not reforming it (because the history of reforms is that capital absorbs them and sells them back to us as the new engine of growth), but building better, more humane and healthy systems and structures in the cracks and gaping holes capitalism has ignored or created. What is interesting is to consider how capitalism destroyed feudalism. There was no war, no revolution, no reform (although wars, revolutions and reforms accompanied the change). Capitalism didn’t even know that it was capitalism until long after it had won. How did this happen? Through the accretion of new cultural modes, tricks, habits and tools that were developed, not with any intent to undermine feudalism, but to make things work for people in the places feudalism could not reach. To provide real value to people where feudalism was ineffective, or simply uninterested. To enable flows of human desire satisfaction and value creation that feudalism could not or would not do – or even conceive of. Through this process, it built a suite of cultural structures and stories that people voted for ‘with their feet’ – including the feudal elites; in the end, this is the approach that leads to peaceful revolution – when we can simply demonstrate a working social system that does better for everyone. For those who can bear to read speculative fiction, Cory Doctorow has written a rather good novel – Walkaway – that puts flesh on this approach.

If we are to succeed, I believe we have to understand this third option. But we haven’t time to wait for a few centuries worth of accretion of random experimental outcomes (the normal evolutionary process). So we have to engage in conscious cultural evolution.

This approach – which I am calling Transcender Culture – is nascent, untried, and chooses as its success metric a complex criterion: the carrying capacity of the biosphere – which is unlikely to align with simplistic measures of economic activity, at least not before deep cultural transformation.

So we will need to be careful, wise, determined and adaptable. Above all, we will need to take people – ordinary people – very seriously indeed. We cannot achieve our aim by expecting that a majority of the world will read things like this post, will become conscious cultural evolutionaries. Instead, we must expect that most people will be people – will care about the things that humans care about (while remembering that the things that capitalism tells us they care about are mostly a distortion) We must meet them there, and demonstrate a world that serves them well; helps them live in sufficiency and security with dignity, believe that their children will have decent life chances, experience positive community, connect with place, live in societies where care and trust are operational.

CONSIDERATIONS

In order to achieve this, if we are to create some sound building blocks for a new economy, those building blocks have to work at least as well as, and reasonably quickly, better than, the existing system, for the participants. Hoping that people will engage in something economically non-productive, in a context completely dominated by deliberately scarce money, rapacious corporations and the culture that surrounds these, is a fools errand.

I suggest we have to:

  • Look for the gaps where real and deep human desires and characteristics are ignored or suppressed by capitalism. These are not hard to identify, and they are at the base of what makes us human, Capitalism has had to fight hard to suppress them, and cannot eliminate them. Dignity, Love and Care, Autonomy-in-community, Place, Mutuality, Respect for ecosystems, Education for life – satisfying any of these in our lives entails working against the grain of our culture. People will welcome and seek out modes of making a living that embody these more on one proviso – that ‘making a living’ is not made harder: bringing one’s children up in security will always trump less immediate needs, and the current model will always seem the most obvious in times of stress.
  • Find ways to make the provision and satisfaction of these needs have an economic value. This seems a cringe-making thing to say – it sounds as if I am proposing turning love into money. But this response is only an indication of how deeply the made-up and outdated stories around debt-based, monopoly issue, inherently scarce money have been incorporated into our psyches. Economy is NOT money. Economy is the management of social resources and sufficiency for well-being. Our new systems (including money systems) must incorporate ways of making love, trust, dignity provide more well-being – on a full-spectrum that explicitly includes what we would now describe as economic security.
  • Consciously design and evolve these on a continuous basis. Capitalism has proved its capacity to adapt and incorporate new ideas at a rapid pace. We need to move faster, while assessing proposals on a broader spectrum.
  • Carefully avoid head-to-head battles against capitalism (for as long as this is possible). Building alternatives to uber is a dubious proposition. We can’t do capitalism better than capitalists (we shouldn’t try to) – and certainly can’t compete with them head-on in spaces they already define and own. This will waste our energies and destroy our hopes (this is what happened with local commodity currency experiments, imho). We need to find spaces that capitalism is uninterested in, and there build strong, self-sustaining, dynamic economically viable institutions, cultural understandings, mutual assurance networks, social relations.
  • Further, understand that we can use capitalism’s short-termism against it. We must design and use investment platforms that are happy to offer attractive rates of return to capital (this is not a pipe- dream, Chris Cook’s nondominium structure is able to offer attractive one-off returns while ratcheting assets and capacity into common control). Again, this sounds as if I am proposing feeding capital. In fact what I am suggesting is doing to capitalism just what it did to feudalism; use its assets as the fuel to build a new system. If that system is attractive to people, then for a while, it will – must – outgrow capitalism, and so provide ‘returns on investment’. The trick is to pay those returns in kind – in the products of the new way of working, rather than in fiat currency. In this way we can gradually hollow out the debt, scarcity and monopoly framed money that underpins so many destructive incentives.
  • Carefully building every single thing we do to protect the value we create from being re-absorbed by capitalism. Building societies are a perfect example. Insufficiently protected, having forgotten the purpose of their existence, they were swept away in a wave of short-termist destruction. We need to design all our institutions, all our mechanics, to operate on a ratcheting basis – once value has entered the new economy, it can’t be taken out (in just such a way capitalism took all the land from feudalists and commoners – buy buying or stealing or legislating it out of primogeniture inheritance, and putting it on the market). It is worse than pointless to build things that can be bought back into capitalism – like Mickey Mouse chopping the broom in half in the ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ scene from Fantasia. Please don’t do it! Asset locks use another plank of capitalism against it – its requirement for strong property law.
  • Build all our systems with Elinor Ostrom’s commons governance married with the best that new democratic thinking has come up with (deliberative democracy, Viable Systems, sociocracy – there is so much good stuff that gets only marginal attention).
  • Understand that we are building human scale systems, that cannot and should not ‘scale’ in the way that we have become used to considering a fundamental requirement for ‘success’. Anything that scales the way capitalism does cannot support the list of humane and life-centred drives that I listed above. We must build a culture that can do something new – can be local and at the same time support and build the complex value chains that make our civilisation possible (more, we will need to make these value chains work in new, non-extractive ways that do not replicate the imperialist and externality mindset of capitalism). This will require federation, subsidiarity, Viable Systems thinking and more  to be made operational.

For me, right now, building a viable and economically attractive mutual credit system is a key plank of this strategy – the place I feel I can be most useful.

Mutual Credit is a money system that provides just enough money to match and develop the capacities of the community using it, without enforced debt or interest, and governed democratically by that community. It disincentivises hoarding and builds trust and inter-dependency. Mutual credit cannot be ‘cashed out’ into debt-based commodity currency.

[The Open Credit Network, which I work on, is developing a UK mutual credit network, with support from many of the leading practitioners and thinkers in this domain. Register your Expressions of Interest here.]

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A Transcender Manifesto – for a world beyond Capitalism. A seed.

If this makes sense to you, you may well be working along these lines already – I hope it is encouraging. If it inspires you, then seek out others who feel the same, and rewrite it together. Make it yours. Make it specific. Publish it. Act on it. Forge relations with other groups. Federate and interact across the world.

There is no transcendism, there are no transcenders; this manifesto can only be enacted by groups coming together; designing, seeding and developing networks of transcendent social relations.

CORE INTENT

We seek not to destroy capitalism, nor to reform it, but to transcend it – to consciously and rapidly evolve past it. We acknowledge its current hegemony, and accept that this arose as a result of its dynamism, adaptability, and ability to offer value to those who built it (while also recognising with horror its inherent violence towards the people and places which it so forcibly transformed). But the law of diminishing returns has set in, and the future negatives now dangerously and imminently outweigh any historic positives.

We will enact and intensify social relations that produce a human culture which supports the abundance of the biosphere, in confidence that this will require human flourishing that transcends what is considered possible under capitalism.

Continue reading “A Transcender Manifesto – for a world beyond Capitalism. A seed.”

Response to Joe Brewer

Joe recently posted a long article that resonated with me, with the rather forbidding title, ‘Why I am no longer attempting to build a rigorous science of social change‘. I don’t know Joe, but have been aware of other posts and essays of his for some time. I connected with these because of seeing the name of the organisation he has co-founded; The Center for Applied Cultural Evolution, which immediately gave me the feeling that we had followed many common thought paths –  a feeling that has been reinforced by everything I have read of his since.

Briefly, what I sensed we share is a certainty that all that we humans really have is each other and our shared culture – that it is past time for us to take responsibility for our own development, and to seek to do this in the wisest, most sane way possible – using the best discoverable integration of our rationalising endeavours and our capacity for humanity. That despite full awareness of the provisional, incomplete and patchy status of both these resources, we are nevertheless at a point in our civilisational development when, for all sorts of reasons, it is both possible and necessary to begin this work.

Screenshot 2018-06-03 14.23.34

This is not the place to rehearse this conviction. If you share it, then read on. If it resonates with you, but you want more detail, then you may wish to read elsewhere before continuing.

Continue reading “Response to Joe Brewer”

Life-like governance: structure thoughts

UPDATE: This post came from some thoughts that had been with me for some time. The title – ‘life-like governance’ was new. And when I saw the title on the screen, I realised that it encompasses a whole set of thoughts that are wider than this one post.

Accordingly, I have tweaked the title of this post with the suffix ‘Structure thoughts’. I’ll add others that relate, and try to build a more complete picture as I go.

Most conversations around governance as progressive organisations form are either handwavy; “It’ll be flat and super democratic” or hyper-specific; “We’ll be using holocracy and a modified version of dot voting plus some Loomio – read this document”. Or worse, some mash-up of the two. This rarely ends well. Either the Tyranny of Structurelessness asserts its dread grip, or the pancake falls apart into a depressing soggy mess.

But we want to build dynamic, effective organisations that have a chance at living alongside rapacious capitalist analogues, and so we must relate to our stakeholders in ways which engage them, and which capitalism cannot copy or steal.

We must have good governance, and it must be engaging.

If we can’t achieve this, we should go and try some other mode. For if we succeed on the basis of something that capitalism CAN do, we will be overrun – access to capital is their superpower (for instance it enables Uber to run at a massive loss, now and for years to come).

Our superpower is humanity. We can and must relate to our stakeholders (whether at the core, at the coalface, or customers) on a basis which engages them as whole humans – to the extent that they will stay because they want to, because they know they want to be with us, rather than with the ‘cheaper’, ‘faster’, ‘flashier’, ‘sexier’, ‘bigger’ that capitalism will always offer.

So here are some thoughts on founding our thinking in notions of ‘life-like’ qualities.

ONE

An idealised scenario for our experience with life-like governance:

TieredGovernanceDiag
We spend our daily lives doing what seems to come next. Only if there is some doubt about whether what we plan to do ‘fits’ do we need to think about ‘policy’. Policy is kept in the pit. Continue reading “Life-like governance: structure thoughts”

On vision, path-dependency, agility – and bears.

A friend sent me a rather wonderful description of an ideal future – one where we knew how to live well on the planet, at ease with each other and our reality, with the positive aspects of incredible technology incorporated and wisely integrated into our humanity – in short, a vision.

And I reacted against it. Certainly not in terms of the spirit, and not in terms of much of the detail. But because of the detail.

Continue reading “On vision, path-dependency, agility – and bears.”

PIVOT!

This blog was started as a pivot – from a vocational career as a bricks-and-mortar architect into the terra incognita of the digital realm.

Lacking qualifications, experience; a track record, deep skills, but at the same time confident that I had much to offer, as well as much to learn, I dove in

.. and now it’s time to pivot again – on this blog at least. From being a commentary, mostly from the outside, looking in at the digital, I’m now involved in some projects, and embarking on others; my interests, my views, my intentions are much clearer – at once more focused and more ambitious.

So from now on there will be more about what I’m involved with, often from a more political, more social point of view.